WASHINGTON - As 100 or so new House members scrambled last week to set up their offices and lobby for committee assignments, Rep. Brian Baird, D-Vancouver, was packing up after 12 years in Congress - bringing to an end a career marked with straight talk that often angered liberals and conservatives.
Baird, in a lengthy interview, remained critical of Republicans, Democrats, the Obama White House, the Bush White House, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, ideologues on both sides, the health care law, the cap-and-trade climate change bill and disingenuous politicians who promise to cut the deficit while slicing taxes and funding a new Interstate 5 bridge across the Columbia River.
He also hints that his political career may not be over, even though he decided not to seek a seventh term in order to spend more time with his twin 5-year-olds.
Baird has roughly $450,000 in his campaign account. He can’t keep it personally, but he can donate it to charity or other campaigns. There’s one other alternative.
“I could use it for another race,” said Baird.
Baird is moving to Edmonds , in the 1st Congressional District north and east of Lake Washington currently represented by Democratic Rep. Jay Inslee. If Inslee were to run for governor in 2012, as many expect, the congressional seat would be open.
The 1st Congressional District would be a more comfortable fit politically for Baird. He’s represented the 3rd Congressional District in southwest Washington. Baird said the 3rd District has become increasingly conservative as Californians fleeing high taxes and illegal immigrants settle there, especially in Clark County.
“Democrats always wanted to know why I wasn’t more liberal,” he said. “The district is getting tougher, and the party doesn’t understand it.”
Even so, Baird said he was confident he would have been reelected if he’d decided to run. In internal polls, Baird said, he was running ahead.
Baird said that if he had sought another term and won, he wouldn’t have voted for Pelosi to retain her leadership position. The congressman has never been enamored with Pelosi.
During consideration of a climate change bill, Baird said Pelosi and the other leaders refused to consider a proposal that would have spurred development of biomass energy projects that use wood by-products. The issue was important to his district, with 20 percent unemployment and a national forest filled with dead and dying trees.
“We had shouting matches with them, we fought them tooth and nail and withheld our votes,” Baird said. “We finally got it in. She (Pelosi) does not listen to other people. She only listens to people she agrees with unless she needs your vote.”
In recent years Baird has taken some tough votes, but ones he considered principled. He voted against the Medicare prescription drug coverage bill, concerned it would balloon the deficit.
Baird voted against the Iraq War, but his later support for the troop surge angered Democratic leaders and liberals.
“They called me a war-monger,” he said. “The ugliness was unpleasant. But then casualties started to drop.”
Saying it didn’t do enough to control medical costs, Baird voted against the House health care overhaul bill, though he voted for the Senate version when it came to the floor.
Baird, who read both the House and Senate health care bills during his weekly flights back to the state, said Democrats should have focused on containing the rising health care costs of the 250 million people who have insurance rather than providing coverage for the 50 million who don’t have it and don’t vote.
“It wasn’t a winner politically,” he said. He added that he would have preferred an incremental approach. “We needed to do it in bite-sized chunks. We needed to start small and force Republicans to vote against ( insurance companies refusing coverage for) pre-existing conditions.”
Baird said he voted only “very reluctantly” for a House energy bill that would have set up a “cap-and-trade” system for carbon emissions. He supported a second version of the stimulus bill, even though it included more than $280 million in tax breaks the Republicans wanted and not enough money for infrastructure.
When the Bush administration needed votes to save the financial system with its Troubled Asset Relief Program, Baird and others Democrats supported it, fearing inaction would lead to a wider economic collapse. If the Democrats had really wanted to play politics, they could have voted no and forced the Republicans to pass the measure on their own, Baird said.
“It could have been their Waterloo,” he said. “We would still be in the majority today. Now we are paying the price.”
Baird also faulted the Obama White House and Democratic congressional leaders for not paying closer attention to getting people back to work and pushing for a massive highway construction and infrastructure bill.
“No one thanked me for the tax cuts in the stimulus bill,” he said. “They think their taxes went up.”
Baird does have a lighter side. He can do a wicked imitation of George Bush, he’s won the celebrity comedian of the year competition in Washington, D.C., and he mixed it up with Stephen Colbert on Comedy Central.
He’s also written a self-published book in which he calls for “comprehensive reforms in virtually every aspect of government,” from Medicare and Social Security to reducing the federal deficit with tax increases and program cuts.
And though his term is nearly over, Baird said he’ll support extending the Bush tax cuts for the middle class but not the rich.
“I still have a vote,” he said.
Baird said he doesn’t expect the Democrats to regain control of Congress for a decade, as Republicans will get credit for an economic recovery they had little to do with.
“I told people we would screw it up,” Baird said of the Democrats. “You should never underestimate the power of liberals to shoot themselves in the foot.”